Maria Full of Grace

HBO Home Video, $27.95

THE YEAR-END top-10 lists and awards-show nominations are nearly upon us, making this Dec. 7 release well (and intentionally) timed for the annual hoopla. Colombian newbie actress Catalina Sandino Moreno is sure to pick up some honors; it's hard to think of any actress this year, apart from Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake, who basically carries a movie as she does here. Maria occupies the bottom rung of the narco-economy as a mule who transports heroin in her stomach, but the fact is that she is drawn to the U.S. by our own insatiable appetite for the drug. Ordinary and easily overlooked, she's integral to the process. She's also a means for writer-director Joshua Marston "to do something about the drug war . . . which I don't find is effective." In addition to the 62 pellets of smack, she's carrying a message that our entire drug-containment system doesn't work.

As part of his chatty commentary, Marston says, "Catalina Sandino was for me this incredible discovery and, I hope, a discovery for the world." In fact, he delayed shooting the movie's first half—in Ecuador, not in the more dangerous Colombia—because he still had no star, even after seeing over 800 potential Marias in auditions and tapes. Crucially, he wasn't interested in casting some angelic figure of virtue who's innocently caught up in the drug trade. "She is also the source of some of her problems by virtue of the rebellious nature," he explains. Her friends, family, boyfriend, and narco-employers all end up being surprised by that in-dependent streak.

Still, the movie is ultimately more immigration study than crime flick. It loses steam, suspensewise, once Maria ditches her smuggling handlers in New Jersey. Instead of internal drugs, we have internal drama, and Sandino's contemplative beauty is well suited to both: Her face always has the look of a woman, underestimated yet shrewd, who's constantly figuring the odds. And her chances are looking better for an Oscar nomination.

ON DISC DEC. 14, Collateral may end up on some 10-best lists (coincidentally, there's a special-edition release of Top Gun, but without Tom Cruise on the commentary). All six Rocky movies are bundled into a gift set (sans Stallone extras). Essential for admirers of Kinji Fukasaku is The Yakuza Papers (Battles Without Honor & Humanity) set of five violent mob pictures, with many extras. Jeff Bridges may score an Oscar nom for The Door in the Floor, and We Don't Live Here Anymore also has some awards-season buzz. And the third Lord of the Rings movie already has all the awards it needs.

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